The new and confident Indian customer

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on: Sep 19, 2014




The inside story of modern retail in India, the opportunities and the challenges for the seller

From Hindustan Unilever to the Future Group, Damodar Mall has worked with some of India’s biggest customer-facing companies. The CEO of Value Retail at Reliance jots down his experiences in modern retail and much more in SupermarketWala — an attempt to decode today’s “confident Indian customer”. In conversation with BLink , he discusses the opportunities and challenges in the Indian market, and what goes into making a successful SupermarketWala. Edited excerpts:

What prompted you to write this book?

I write an invitation blog for Forbes India and my publishers found me there. They said my thoughts, and way of writing, are shareable on a much bigger scale and that’s how the book happened. As I say in the book, I was not meant to write. I sell stuff as my day job. And I do share things about modernising retail from a customer-centric view, unlike the usual square feet, supply chain and investment narrative. Kishore Biyani says in the preface: “Someone needs to give the new modern retail phenomenon a vocabulary of understanding.” The book is born out of the need to offer today’s observations and insights on the confident Indian customer to people coming to the consumer goods and retail sector.

Has the Indian customer evolved or have her shopping preferences remained the same over the last two decades?

The one constant thing is that the consumer is always changing, with growing purchasing power and aspirations. Brand owners and retailers are unable to keep pace with consumers — the kind of products, the manner in which they are sold and the way services are designed.

In urban India, every six or seven years, incomes are doubling. That is opening up opportunities everywhere. Products, people and retailers need to be more imaginative to keep pace with what the consumer is ready for. Also, most products and services get designed for the salaried, ‘credit card’ India, and leave out the large and moneyed self-employed — Gold Collared — segment.

What advantages do regional retailers like D-Mart have over national chains?

The food preferences in India vary so much that it is sometimes simpler to do a regional and higher density set of stores, as it keeps your variables lower. But in terms of size of opportunity, there is not much difference. One can take either a density strategy or a pan-India strategy for retail. The difference is in management bandwidth and risk appetite. If I am a large corporate, then I may be able to handle pan-India in, say, the top 30 markets. But if I am a new player starting from scratch, and it is my only business, the simpler I keep it, the better it is. It is an internal choice and not market-driven. Every region of India will be as big as many countries in terms of market size.

What is the perfect recipe for a successful supermarket?

Worldwide, some of the largest food-led value retail chains tend to be local. It is not about local ownership but about tuning into the local customers. I call India not just an emerging but also a very assertive market, especially about her food preferences. Those who start by saying ‘the customer is right and I will serve her’ are likely to be in a better place with a shorter learning curve than those who start by saying ‘I know what modernity is going to be eventually and I will start from there’. They will have a steeper learning curve.

Does the book provide the gist of your experiences at retail chains or does it go beyond that?

It is definitely beyond my roles and experience spanning Hindustan Unilever and modern retail. It draws from the outcome of various consumer studies. Beyond the consumer end of modern retail, SupermarketWala looks at building brands, and the impact of change on small vendors and on associates working in modern retail stores. There are lakhs whose lives modern retail touches in a way that the rest of the economy cannot. The book is written in my SupermarketWala mode and is not just about the jobs I have been in.

Published on September 19, 2014

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